This series tracks news and views from our ‘Evidence-Based Policy Research Methods’ course. Many participants work at the highest of levels, both nationally and internationally, including for other parts of the UN system. They come to Maastricht for this unique blended learning programme, covering three weeks in class and 10 weeks online. This time we speak with Marcos Vaena, who works for the International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank Group, in Washington DC.
You recently joined our part-time EPRM programme. Why exactly did you apply?
I had been searching for a programme that allowed me to combine my specific research interests with a rather busy work schedule. The blended format with in-person classes and distance learning modules worked very well for me, by providing a good balance between flexibility of schedule and the opportunity to meet in person the tutors and faculty staff during the first couple of weeks of the programme. This allowed me to develop a good working relationship with the tutors, while also meeting other mid-career professionals with whom I could exchange relevant experiences.
As a development economist, I had reached a point in my career where I felt the need to dig deeper academically, to better understand – both from a theoretical and analytical perspective – some of the challenges that I was typically tasked to solve through my work. The strong emphasis on learning evidence-based approaches to policy making has been incredibly valuable for me professionally. It has strengthened my understanding of how to conduct more rigorous research and policy analysis, and ultimately, I am confident that it will also lead to significant improvements in the quality of my work.
You work in the USA for the International Finance Corporation (IFC). How does research complement the policymaking side of your job?
In my work at the IFC, I carry out political and economic analysis (both at macro and micro levels), aimed at better informing our investment strategies at the country level. I focus primarily on the Africa and Latin America regions, and have responsibility over a portfolio of countries where I conduct my research.
The EPRM programme has helped me in becoming more systematic in my research process, by following a more structured approach. This includes being more careful in reviewing the existing literature and theoretical frameworks related to my research topic, structuring the research design and methodology to better suit the specific questions being asked, and sharing my findings more widely once the research is completed. Ultimately, the goal is to have a more robust evidence base from which to derive policy recommendations. This is particularly important working for a knowledge-based organisation such as the IFC, which is part of the World Bank Group. Evidence-based research is not only valued, but is is crucial to the credibility of our work vis-à-vis our clients.
How has EPRM made you more efficient at work?
My current work relies heavily on reviewing economic research, so the added knowledge of available databases and quantitative analysis software (e.g. STATA) have already contributed to improving my understanding of how econometric analysis is performed, as well as how to interpret the results. This has allowed me to better understand technical economic literature and improve on my own research methods.
Another valuable resource is having learned to systematise literature reviews, including with the help of software such as Zotero or Endnote. This was a valuable skill to learn, since my work often involves reviewing existing literature on different research topics. I have been able to better organise my literature review and save valuable time when compiling bibliographies for the reports I am writing at work.
Finally, the specialisation module on innovation has also opened the doors to additional collaboration with experts in this field here at my workplace. Given my specific research interest in this topic, I have already reached out to colleagues who are directly involved in this field. I’ve received valuable feedback from them on my research proposal, and we’re discussing potential collaboration based on my research proposal. In short, EPRM has become a bridge between my academic and professional interests.
How is the work, study, ‘life’ balance? Do you have any tips for future participants?
The workload has been rather challenging. On top of a demanding job, I also have a young family at home (three children, including a 9-month old baby), which basically meant very little sleep in recent months! Being aware of your individual professional and personal situation is very important in order to plan ahead and cope with the extra academic commitments. In my case, this was at times quite a challenging combination to manage, so it’s important that you are realistic with what can be accomplished based on your professional and family commitments, as well as your individual situation.
While I have not yet completed the EPRM, I have already learned important lessons on how to best manage my time. Planning ahead for the assignments is critical, as time is a precious commodity in this type of setting. The coursework is demanding, so time management is a critical skill to be developed for anyone undergoing this programme. If you feel your job commitments are too heavy to accommodate the EPRM workload, a possible option is to spread the course modules over two semesters, to allow for more time between each module and the completion of the research proposal.
Secondly, making effective use of your tutor’s availability is also important. I have received valuable feedback from my tutor on how to better structure my research to develop a more focused research question. It’s important to engage proactively with your tutor and be open to their guidance in order to maximise the benefit from the programme.
Finally, regular communication with your other colleagues / peers in the programme offers a valuable opportunity to exchange experiences and keep each other motivated. We set up a WhatsApp group where we exchange feedback on the assignments and keep in touch during the period we’re working on the distance learning modules.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.